The written word and what the eye can see are brought together in this fascinating foray into the depiction of resistance to slavery through the modern medium of film. Natalie Zemon Davis, whose book The Return of Martin Guerre was written while she served as consultant to the French film of the same name, now tackles the large issue of how the moving picture industry has portrayed slaves in five major motion pictures spanning four generations. The potential of film to narrate the historical past in an effective and meaningful way, with insistence on loyalty to the evidence, is assessed in five films: Spartacus (1960), Burn! (1969), The Last Supper (1976), Amistad (1997), and Beloved (1998).
Davis shows how shifts in the viewpoints of screenwriters and directors parallel those of historians. Spartacus is polarized social history; the films on the Caribbean bring ceremony and carnival to bear on the origins of revolt; Amistad and Beloved draw upon the traumatic wounds in the memory of slavery and the resources for healing them. In each case Davis considers the intentions of filmmakers and evaluates the film and its techniques through historical evidence and interpretation. Family continuity emerges as a major element in the struggle against slavery.
Slaves on Screen is based in part on interviews with the Nobel prize–winning author of Beloved, Toni Morrison, and with Manuel Moreno Fraginals, the historical consultant for The Last Supper. Davis brings a new approach to historical film as a source of “thought experiments” about the past. While the five motion pictures are sometimes cinematic triumphs, with sound history inspiring the imagination, Davis is critical of fictive scenes and characters when they mislead viewers in important ways. Good history makes good films.
Her subject is always worth considering… [Davis] considers how slavery is portrayed and how its history is treated. She compares the writing of history (which has been around for 2,500 years) with feature filmmaking about history (which has been around for 100 years) and concludes, ‘Historical films should let the past be the past.’
[Davis] addresses Hollywood’s treatment of African-American history squarely, showing how the images have changed from Spartacus to Beloved.
This book is filled with valuable lessons for students of both the past itself and the various media through which history can be told.
Davis, a historian with a concentration on people outside traditional power centers, explores the treatment of slaves on film from a historical perspective…[and] sets up the complex interplay between historically supportable fiction and imagination… The historical alterations that take place, Davis advocates, should be acknowledged to film viewers so that they may distinguish between historical fact and fiction… Very informative.
Here, slavery itself serves as a springboard for a larger consideration: respect for the historical record vs. a need for dramatic effect. Davis argues convincingly for the historical film as a source of ‘thought experiments’ about the past rather than pure presentation of fact.
This book will give us a wholly new view of how slavery has been perceived and understood by a broad public audience.
A superlative job. Davis demonstrates how contemporary events (the civil rights movement, a growing awareness of the Holocaust, for example) impinged upon Hollywood’s portrayal of slavery, and she deftly analyzes the advantages and pitfalls of film as history. There is no book quite like it.
An engrossing and illuminating account of the ways in which films show our understanding of slavery. Natalie Davis once again illustrates, with sensitivity and craft, the sheer pleasure of history in its innumerable forms.
A major historian convincingly shows how cinema has an important contribution to make to our understanding of the past.
Davis persuasively demonstrates how each film is a profound and complex collaboration. The fusion of detailed movie explication with detailed historical narration makes Davis’s judgments deep and subtle. Readers learn about slavery and also about how filmmakers interpret the past. Davis also propounds guidelines for thinking about how filmmakers should do what they do, and how historians should react. She pleads for filmmakers to regard the past more seriously, and she urges them to have faith that audiences will be transfixed by this vivid rendering.
- 176 pages
- 5-1/16 x 7-15/16 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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